5G and Manufacturing Production

Despite its size, the manufacturing sector has struggled to grow for over a decade, largely due to stagnant productivity. Yet the sector is a particularly important driver of regional prosperity, responsible for over 17% of Wales’ total national output, and over 16% of the West Midlands. 

Businesses are therefore under pressure to become more agile and dynamic, both in the factory and throughout the supply chain. 

Thankfully, 5G is here to improve per-hour output: a survey by The Manufacturing Institute found that manufacturers expect 5G to initiate an estimated 42% increase in machine output, in addition to 41% for workers. 5G and other advanced connectivity networks will play a fundamental role in meeting customer expectations and competing against offshore manufacturers.

While Industry 4.0 brings increased automation, 5G’s high bandwidth and ultra-reliable low latency communications take performance and efficiency to the next level, facilitating effective and seamless handover between human and machine. This can have a positive impact on production quality, too; the ability to monitor assembly at unprecedented levels of granularity and in real-time saves time, reduces waste and boosts efficiency. What’s more, in an industry where safety, security and standards are paramount, increasing automation will remove and reduce risks to workers.

Production Applications

Real-Time Monitoring of the Production Process

As products and customer needs evolve, manufacturing equipment and processes have become increasingly costly and complex. If a machine part isn’t aligned with millimetre perfection, for example, or there is a slight variation in factory temperature or humidity, the quality of products can be impacted. Alongside shrinking margins, uptime has to be maximised and performance optimised in order to remain profitable. 

High bandwidth solutions offer the ability to simultaneously connect as many as a million devices per km2; sensors can therefore be deployed through all parts of the factory at a density not previously possible. The low latency of 5G also means the data from these sensors and ultra-high-definition cameras can be viewed in real-time, offering unprecedented levels of insight at all levels—from the overall factory conditions to the settings and performance of individual machines' parts. This visibility is crucial for production lines: enabling early fault detection, ensuring correct conditions are maintained, and creating the ability to easily adjust the settings as required. The result is less wastage, reduced costs and a more productive factory floor.

Where has 5G been deployed to enable real-time monitoring of end-to-end production?

In the UK5G Testbed and Trials Programme, two Vodafone 5G private networks were installed as part of the 5GEM project, in Ford Motor Company’s Dunton facility and TWI Cambridge. With this connectivity, they deployed sensors monitoring laser welding for hairpin joining and battery-bus-bar joining in the production of vehicle electrical components.

Chris White, Ford’s 5GEM lead said:

“Connecting today’s shop floor requires significant time and investment.  The present technology can be the limiting factor in reconfiguring and deploying next-gen manufacturing systems.  5G provides the opportunity to transform the speed of launch and flexibility of present manufacturing facilities, moving us towards tomorrow’s plants connected to remote expert support and artificial intelligence.”

5G’s low latency and high data allowance are invaluable here as they need to check 192 welds per part at least 3 times per cycle and in a full-sized facility will be welding hundreds of connections per second. If conditions such as temperature or light change, Ford needs to both be aware and able to change machine settings in milliseconds to optimise production output. With 5G, this is now possible.

AE Aerospace, a leading SME manufacturing business, is using high-quality wireless 5G and a range of sensors installed across the factory floor to enable high volume data capture. Machines can communicate with one another in real-time, enabling live updates and changes to achieve greater operational efficiency on the production line. 

Further afield, the Gestamp factory in Barcelona became the first digitised factory in Spain to deploy 5G for industrial purposes. They have used the network and Mobile Edge Computing to connect the physical elements of their plant, such as the robotic welding cells. Sensors are used to capture and process in real-time the data produced by this industrial equipment during its operation. Similarly, BMW Brilliance Automation in China has deployed a private 5G network across all its plants to enable networked machines and systems to exchange data in real-time, optimising the production process.

The level of precision that can be achieved with 5G is perhaps best demonstrated by MTO Aero who worked with Ericsson to deploy 5G and Industrial IoT to monitor the production of highly expensive bladed disks that are used in jet engines. This is one of the most demanding processes of all metal products where precision and accuracy is key, as quality has a direct impact on jet engine safety. The stakes are also high from a commercial perspective; each disk takes approximately 100 hours to produce and rework rates were as high as 25% with no way to check the accuracy of the piece until it was finished. By deploying 5G and vibration sensors, MTO Aero can now tightly monitor production in real-time, enabling far earlier detection of issues. It is the stability and low latency of 5G that enables this, providing a latency of less than 1 millisecond. The results? A reduction in re-work rates of up to 25%, equating to annual savings of approximately EUR 27 million for one single factory, and up to EUR 360 million globally, plus a reduction of annual CO2 emissions of 360 metric tons.

Quality Control

Product quality has a direct impact on the bottom line: Forbes estimates that the cost of repairs, reworks, scrappage, service calls, warranty claims and write-offs falls between 10% and 20% of total revenues for the majority of manufacturers. The high bandwidth capabilities of 5G and subsequently, increased monitoring capabilities, can dramatically improve quality control, which improves efficiency and reduces costs. 5G networks power a range of industrial digital technologies to achieve this, including ultra-high-definition cameras and sensors that capture data sent to AI and Machine Learning systems—in addition to other innovative ways of working such as automated inspection robots and VR/AR enabling workers to more easily refer to CAD designs.

Deploying advanced connectivity solutions presents a variety of opportunities that improve accuracy and as a result, produce less waste, increasing the sustainability of the sector and adhering to the priorities of key customers, including government contracts.

Where has 5G been deployed to enable quality control?

AE Aerospace—utilising a private 5G network—is using real-time ultra-high-definition image comparisons and calibration tracking to ensure product quality assurance. The network is also increasing the manufacturer’s accuracy of measurements by tagging production units’ gauges so that their location can be tracked in real-time, increasing the accuracy of measurement. Operational and productivity gains here are significant, in addition to less product wastage, which will have a positive impact on the environment.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said:

“Manufacturing is the bedrock of the west midlands economy and the ability to harness the power of 5G and other new technologies will help manufacturers to not only remain competitive in a fierce global marketplace but put themselves at the cutting edge.”

The 5G Factory of the Future project trialled real-time monitoring of machines using the decreased latency capabilities of 5G—creating a non-fault forward manufacturing system and ultimately, reducing costs and time associated with defect and quality issues. Impressively, the project estimated this could deliver a 15-25% reduction in the number of defects, amount of waste generated and machine downtime arising from improved process precision and fewer errors. Read their end of project report here.

In South Korea, Samsung is utilising 5G-enabled artificial intelligence to check for defects and filter out defective products in less than eight seconds. A 12-megapixel camera takes 24 pictures of each product from various directions and sends them to a cloud server, where AI checks for any defects and filters out defective products with robotic arms.   

A similar approach is used by Haier, a Chinese manufacturer of home appliances and consumer electronics. Historically, the manufacturer manually checked every refrigerator that comes from the production line for defects (stainless steel easily suffers imperfections through scratching and denting); a very time-consuming task. But with edge-computing-initiated near real-time analysis, refrigerators can be inspected and returned to the production line almost instantly. 

A 5G connected MEC architecture additionally enabled high-volume image processing with minimal latency. The Haier factory mounted a 500W industrial camera onto a robotic arm, with high-intensity lighting, which is able to scan the refrigerators as they come off the production line. By using a trained algorithm, the local application is able to identify any damage to the exterior of the refrigerator that requires replacement.

At the Mercedes-Benz factory in Sindelfingen, Germany a private 5G network has enabled automated quality control; the automobile is able to be tested on the production line itself, removing the need for post-production testing. This significantly speeds up production times, increasing the overall factory output.

Similarly, the Xinfengming Group factory in China is using inspection robots powered by 5G to improve quality control in the production of filaments. The chemical fibre industry traditionally suffers significant losses through the production process but 8k cameras, robots and mobile edge computing have enabled the business to detect issues earlier, improving production quality.

While live monitoring has its benefits on the factory floor, it can also accelerate operating procedures outside of it. Siemens implemented its first live remote monitoring system10 for Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT) in its Transformers factory in Mexico. This allows the the customer’s contract specifications to be installed on-site, without customers having to be physically present. Siemens used 12 cameras transmitting high-quality videos in real-time—without a fast and stable connection, it would be difficult for both operators and customers to conduct the tests without some sort of delay or potential for miscommunication. With 5G, live streaming and remote monitoring will be more seamless, accurate, and secure, enabling operators to broaden its application and troubleshoot problems as they happen. 

Factory Automation

The increased bandwidth and ultra-low latency offered by 5G facilitates more advanced automation than previously possible, introducing drones or robots that can multitask and undertake more complex tasks in precise settings. This can free up human workers to undertake more skilled work, protect them from potentially hazardous settings, improve factory efficiencies and boost productivity. The reliability of 5G also facilitates remote operation of robots, further boosting safety and agility. The ultimate end goal could even be a move to ‘dark factories’, where fully automated production lines don’t require lighting, saving huge amounts of energy.

Where has 5G been deployed to enable factory automation?

5G-ENCODE, led by Zeetta Networks, delivered a private 5G network within the National Composites Centre to process and monitor analytics in real-time. Business benefits included a step towards full machine autonomy (avoiding, for example, the need for humans to monitor unsafe environments such as ovens) and an estimated 40% better yield.

In partnership with WM5G, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) has deployed a 5G private network. The network is used to facilitate automated logistics, robotics and vision inspection, providing production lines with varied inspection requirements; for example, autonomous mobile robots are being used to rapidly transport components across the factory to an inspection cell where products are checked against design specifications. 

The 5G CAL project worked with the Nissan plant in Sunderland (the largest car plant in the UK) to demonstrate the ability of 5G to safely and securely undertake remote operation of an autonomous 40-tonne truck. 5G was used to provide high bandwidth, low latency and highly reliable bi-directional communications with the vehicle in a brilliant demonstration of the capabilities of 5G and Connected Automated Logistics.  Watch the video below to see the project’ side-by-side testing:

A private 5G network was set up in Mercedes-Benz’ 215k square-foot factory in southern Germany, whereby all production systems and machines are now fully autonomous. The company noted that “the success of the implementation has been clear to see”. Ultra-reliable low latency communications have allowed the business to take full advantage of new use cases such as Automation, AI and predictive maintenance while improving flexibility, efficiency and quality of production lines in real-time.

Jorg Burzer, Member of the Divisional Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz Cars, Production and Supply Chain, said:

“As the inventor of the car, we are taking digitalisation in production to a whole new level.  With the installation of a local 5G network, the networking of all production systems and machines in the Mercedes-Benz Cars factories will become even smarter and more efficient in the future.  This opens up completely new production opportunities.”

In South Korea, Parkwon has deployed 5G controlled robots for packaging processes. Robots are able to perform tasks significantly faster than human workers: the shift to automation is expected to reduce packaging times by 28%. Some factories already have machines picking up parts from fixed locations but with 5G IoT, robots will be able to use sophisticated vision systems to locate parts, regardless of location. Pickit, for example, has created robots equipped with HD cameras that can use computer vision to locate parts. Since 5G enhances computing power beyond device capacity, data analysis can occur in the edge cloud. The robots themselves require minimal processing power.  

Meanwhile, the European INGENIOUS project is exploring how 5G can enable multi-tasking autonomous robots in production lines, requiring latencies of just a few milliseconds. And Telefonica and Unmanned Life—at the SEAT factory in Barcelona—are collaborating to deploy the world’s first autonomous integrated assembly line with both automated mobile robots and drones. 

Closer Working Between Humans & Machines

Increased automation on the factory floor inevitably means humans and machines working more closely together.  5G’s reliability and low latency are well suited for the wide-scale deployment of robots. Such close working side by side can potentially be hazardous for workers but 5G’s ability to enable smarter, more reactive robots makes interactions between human and machine seamless, safe and effective.  

Where has 5G been deployed to enable closer working between humans and machines?

As part of the 5G-SMART project, the software controlling autonomous robots is moved to an edge cloud platform that connects to robots via 5G. The project is testing the ability of robots to smartly navigate a space, including collision avoidance, and for humans to teach robots how to use their robotic arms.

Ericsson and Audi have successfully tested a robot cell similar to those operating in Audi factories today, but over 5G connectivity. A robot arm was used to build an airbag while a laser curtain protected the open side of the robot cell; the ultra-low latency and reliability of 5G ensured that if a factory worker were to reach into the cell, the robot would stop instantly, preventing accidents. This quick response is not possible through traditional Wi-Fi or previous-generation mobile networks: such machines typically require restrictive wired technology. A 5G network, therefore, increases the flexibility, safety and efficiency of a production line.

Henning Loser, head of the production lab for Audi, said:

“5G connects all the dots in our production environment, resulting in tremendous flexibility improvements, enhanced connectivity and a complete reimagining of what safe human-robot collaboration can look like.”

Assisting & Upskilling Workers

5G's enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) enables the streaming of Ultra HD video, AR/ VR and intelligent analytics, which can provide staff with immersive, interactive training and support via connected tablets or mixed reality, utilising real-time data. Amid an ageing workforce and lack of digital skills, advanced connectivity solutions can help decentralise expertise and act as a lifeline for the sector. Instead of sending highly skilled workers to sites, mixed reality and connected devices can be used to provide insights and assistance at the point of operation. It can, for example, integrate digital work instructions with CAD designs to help engineers carry out complex assembly activities. Low latency instructions, enabled by 5G technology, could save about five seconds per instruction read compared with traditional methods.

Worker Safety

Manufacturing is a heavily regulated industry where safety, security, and standards are paramount. With the introduction of robots and automated guided vehicles, the factory floor is becoming more complex with new potential risks to workers emerging.  5G  is here to supplement and expand on existing measures, enabling greater safety even in the face of increased complexity. Ultra high-definition cameras provide real-time feeds of the production line and when coupled with Machine Learning, can identify tired workers and identify patterns or behaviours that might pre-empt an accident. Connected tools can monitor how workers are using machines or equipment and identify incorrect operations. While the ultra-reliable low latency of 5G allows for robots to be able to rapidly respond to their surrounding environments and for remote operation of autonomous vehicles in the case of an emergency situation. 5G networks can power a range of technologies and solutions that will ensure workers are able to safely operate tools and machines and navigate their surrounding environment, which is vital for both employee wellbeing and productivity.

Provisioning Products

The products being assembled in factories are not just ever-more complex, they are also increasingly software and firmware dependent. A modern car for instance typically requires the installation of 500 Megabytes of operating and control software that manages the power unit, infotainment and navigation systems. It is estimated that by 2025 the software install will have increased to more than 3 Gigabytes. And once provisioned with the initial software, technicians will often then need to run diagnostic tests on various elements of the product in question. Provisioning these products earlier in the production process drives operational efficiencies but can also open up the opportunity to then use the product’s connectivity itself for real-time tracking and location status. Traditionally this has been challenging when relying on the restrictions of wired connectivity and Wi-Fi does not provide the reliability required. With 5G’s ultra-reliability and increased speeds, connected products can be provisioned far earlier in the production process with fewer errors, stoppages and reinstallations: saving time and money.